Fire and Brimstone with a Side of Salvation

“For the great day of his wrath is come and who shall be able to stand?”

I think of all the quotable material from the Book of Revelation, this line struck me the most. At first, it was because it reminded me of one of my favorite post-apocalyptic books, The Stand by Stephen King. (I did check to see if this quotation had inspired the title. However, King’s epigrams suggest that honor goes to a Bruce Springsteen song and not the Book of Revelation – though it is certainly relevant.) On further examination however, what struck me about this line from Revelation is that “his” does not refer to Satan, but to God. My Catholic upbringing had introduced me to a mostly benevolent, forgiving God, from whom only good things came – quite in contrast to the Book of Revelation, which seems to consist mainly of fire and brimstone with a side of salvation. This is a point that Kirsch makes on more than one occasion, and which explains the controversy that has surrounded John’s revelations since they came into existence. God does not welcome the faithful to a life of eternal salvation, but seems to dare them to stand and be judged, as if he doubts many will pass his litmus test. This black-and-white morality seems impossible to apply in a world filled with grey, but I suppose that is part of the appeal – it simplifies things. Perhaps this helps us to answer the question why smart, educated people believe in the revelations; as Kirsch said, the Book of Revelation gives us someone to blame for the ills of the world and a reason that bad things happen to good people. If everyone has the mark of Satan or the mark of God, it’s easy to tell who your friends and enemies are. This certainly brought to mind the zombie genre – as a rule, zombies are your enemy, and humans are your friends. Though some books and films may attempt to complicate this picture on the human side, the bad guys stay the bad guys – zombies are your enemy, just as those with the mark of Satan are. The demonization of ones enemies that occurs in the Book of Revelation happens every day, but not usually in such a literal sense with such dire consequences.

For a book that is supposed to answer some faith-based questions, it certainly raises many more. Reading the actual Book of Revelation made it much easier to understand the impulses of the code-breakers and date-settlers. Beyond establishing some sort of control over what they believe to be impending catastrophe, John himself is so obsessed with the numbers that it is hard not to believe that they have a deep significance. Even locusts aren’t locusts (as I had always thought) – they’re strange beasts with a frightening mix of other animal’s body parts.  The need for a symbolic reading is clear, but the answers to some basic “plot” questions are not. Why does Satan need to be “loosed a little season”? Why not just kill him now? In a more general sense, if the real conflict is between Satan and God, why must human history end in catastrophe? The answers to these questions seemed to be based more in John’s lust for revenge than in a sense of justice, or (dare I say) reason. Here again, however, the appeal of the Book of Revelations is apparent. Reason can only get us so far when discussing the end of the world. The Book of Revelation, while raising more questions, at least attempts to give some answers.

One thought on “Fire and Brimstone with a Side of Salvation

  1. I think its really interesting that you brought up the issues of black and white morality – both in the Book of Revelation as well as our modern day doomsday scenarios. I was really surprised by how tyrannical God seemed in the Book of Revelation; most of the plagues and misfortunes that befell people were not brought about by Satan, but instead by God’s angels. Furthermore, prior to the plagues starting, he had already marked those that he would save (I think the number was something like 144,000) and so the rest of humanity was doomed to suffer. Also, I had never thought about how clear cut morality is in zombie movies. I can’t think of a single book or movie where the zombies were portrayed as anything but mindless monsters that you need to kill. I think you might be interested in an article that was in the NY Times Book Review a few weeks ago about how the recent interest in zombies in popular fiction is driven by a fear of too many people competing for too few resources; if you buy the argument the author is making, than zombies can be thought to represent people’s anxiety about illegal immigrants or the growing populations in the developing world, which is certainly an unsettling thought when you consider that zombies are unequivocally “evil”.

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